Book Title: Boxers
Author: Gene Luen Yang
Style: Graphic Novel
Target Audience: YA
Genres: Historical Fiction
Page Count: 336
Format: Paperback (library)
Reading time: 1.5 hours
Date Finished: 1/31/17
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My impressions: I read Gene Luen Yang’s Saints earlier this month without realizing it was a parallel story (and companion novel) to a longer story called Boxers about the historical Boxer Rebellion in 1899. Once I figured that out, I put in a request so I could read the story of Little Bao and his army, the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fist.
First of all, it’s worth saying – this is a work of historical fiction, not an actual retelling of the known history of the Boxer Rebellion, though author Gene Luen Yang apparently spent years researching the story and developing the plot. One of the true elements of the story is that the young men who became known by the Westerners as the “Boxers” really did train in martial arts and undergo ancient rituals to summon spirits that they believed would make them invulnerable to harm, a millenarian movement that was roughly contemporary to the Ghost Dancers in the United States (and which has many eerie parallels). The young men who participated in this movement were also generally poorly educated, strongly nationalist, extremely hostile towards foreigners and Western culture (particularly Christianity) and folk heroes to rural villagers while simultaneously being considered like roving bands of terrorists in more sophisticated society.
The graphic novel depicts this from a sympathetic point of view to the characters themselves, showing how Little Bao is initially influenced by Chinese opera and by a traveling warrior who stays in town and teaches the young men kung fu. Bao’s journey from child to leader of a revolution takes on a mythical quality as he locates a spiritual master on a mountain and later channels the spirit of the founding emperor of the Qin Dynasty. His fellow soldiers channel other characters of Chinese mythology and history, taking on the operatic appearance of characters like Liu Bei and Sun Wukong.
But as the story goes on, Bao’s spiritual advisor grows darker and more demanding, insisting that he restore China to its Qing Dynasty glory and expel all foreign influence, even if it means slaughtering women and children who have become Christians (or as the rebels call them, “secondary devils”) or burning down a magnificent library in Peking that contains the histories and stories of the people. Bao also struggles with his romance with Mei-wen, the female leader of the Red Lanterns (a womens’ army) who shares his values, but whom he ultimately betrays as he assumes a new persona of a god of fire, consuming everything around him.
There’s also an interesting parallel to the story of Four-Girl / Vibiana from Saints. Bao lives in a home where he’s the youngest boy, and his brothers often knock him on the head and treat him badly, but unlike Four-Girl’s lonely life, Bao seems to feel loved and appreciated. Bao, too, leaves home for a holy purpose, but whereas Four-Girl leaves behind a mother who she never sees again, Bao leaves behind a father who’d begged him to stay and care for him (and who dies a lonely death once Bao leaves). Four-Girl has visions of a holy warrior maiden who encourages; Bao channels the spirit of the violent Son of Heaven, who often demands his submission. As Vibiana, Four-Girl cares for orphans; as the leader of the warrior rebels, Bao cares for men older than himself. The contrasts and comparisons go on from there, and are obviously quite structured.
There are intersections, too – these characters see each other at odd points and ultimately play a role in each others’ ultimate fate. Bao kills Vibiana when she refuses to renounce her faith, and the scene is much colder in Boxers than in Saints, where Vibiana has a vision of the Christ (which parallels Bao and Mei-wen’s vision of Quan Yin as the Goddess of Peace) and gives Bao a spiritual gift before accepting her fate. In Saints, this gift is what Bao uses to escape the fatal gunshot wounds he seems to endure at the end of Boxers, and the story even provides some reconciliation with his surviving brother. It’s a powerful conclusion to a deeply tragic and contemplative story.
My advice to anyone reading this series is to get the box set and read Boxers then Saints (as I should have) together. The stories are complementary and have many layers and ideas. They make the Boxer Rebellion seem human, and yet they infuse mythic and spiritual themes to make them also feel otherworldly so that the violence doesn’t turn the reader off to the characters right away. Since this portion of history is likely unfamiliar to many Western readers like myself, Gene Luen Yang has provided a great service to those of us in offering a take on the story that’s sympathetic to all sides of the Chinese peoples who endured this turbulent era, and all without passing too much judgment on the Western peoples who were in the midst of carving up this ancient civilization for themselves before the Chinese expelled them.